A Soul in Search of Salvation
The Story of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation
“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate,
and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction,
And many there be which go in thereat.”
“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed
from faith to faith: as it is written,
The just shall live by faith.”
By the beginning of the sixteenth century the broad religious path to eternal destruction in the Western World was well traveled. Countless souls had embraced those doctrines that set forth a system of salvation by works. Very few individuals bothered to ask whether or not the things that the Catholic Church taught were true or consistent with the Scriptures.
Some did not ask because life was exciting and filled with adventure. This was the era of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Copernicus, and Columbus. The Western World was alive with art and literature, court intrigue and political upheaval, the discovery of new worlds, and the rebirth of learning.
While some enjoyed the Renaissance, others, mainly to be found in the countryside, were struggling to exist. Hundreds upon thousands of peasants were not aware of the voyages of Columbus. They knew nothing of the glories of Renaissance art and literature until much later. Instead, multitudes endured the terrible realities of life in Europe where violence and bloodshed were part of everyday life. Life was short, medicine was crude, and death was certain. People who lived past thirty were considered to be old. Women often-died in childbirth and, if they managed to survive, an alarming number of their babies did not.
The institutional Roman Catholic Church took advantage of the plight of the people. There was financial exploitation as church offices were given to the highest bidder and worse, salvation was offered for a price. Greed, graft, and moral corruption characterized convents, monasteries, and reached upward to capture the Vatican itself. The glorious light of the gospel grew dim in such circumstances causing concerned souls to search for salvation.
Among those who were struggling to know the truth was a young German lad by the name of Martin Luther. The things he would be shown by the grace of God would restore his soul, reform the Church, and revolutionize the world. And it all came about in the search for salvation.
The Story Begins
On November 10, 1483, at Eisleben German (about 120 miles southwest of modern Berlin), a baby boy was born who was destined to change the world. His parents had worked in Eisleben as domestic servants. Then, the family moved to Mansfield, where the father, Hans Luder, as his name was pronounced locally, went to work in the local copper mines.
An Unhappy Home Life
It was not always a happy home into which the child named Martin had been born. Both his father Hans, and his mother, Margaretha, also known as Hannah Lindemann, were strict disciplinarians. Martin would later record that his father whipped him so severely on one occasion that, “I ran away and felt ugly toward him until my father sought me out for reconciliation”.
His mother was equally firm. Luther would tell his students, “My mother once beat me with a cane for stealing a nut, until the blood came. Such strict discipline drove me to the monastery, although she meant well.”
In all fairness to the parents, such things were not uncommon. Many parents used excessive force in discipline.
Despite the rigorous punishment Luther honored his parents. Later, when writing a work entitled On Monastic Vows Martin dedicated the book to his father. He desired that his parents be pleased with his work as a minister—and they were despite some initial opposition by Hans. Hans had hoped that Martin might become a lawyer. Indeed, Luther’s initial studies were destined to lead him in that direction.
In 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt, at the age of 17, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree the next year in 1502. Three years later, in 1505, Luther earned another degree (MA) at Erfurt and began his law studies. Academically, things were going very well for Martin until one humid day in 1505.
The Motive to Become a Monk
While walking back to school, on July 2, the twenty-one year old law student encountered a fierce lightening storm. Terrified that he would be killed, Luther cried out,
“Help me, St. Anne!
I’ll become a monk!”
The storm passed by, but not Luther’s vow. He was determined to keep his word to the patron saint of miners and others. Perhaps Martin remembered another crisis experience of his. He was nineteen years old when he almost bled to death. It happened this way. On his way home from school a sword Luther carried, according to the custom of the day, pierced his leg and cut an artery. The wound was severe and Luther’s friend ran off to find medical help. Luther put his finger in the gapping hole and prayed,
“O Mary, help!”
God the Father was gracious, and the doctor came, just in time. Luther’s life was spared. Having escaped death twice, Luther was not willing to risk a third encounter of the worst kind. He would enter a monastery because there was something else which Luther was concerned about the state of his soul.
In particular, Luther wanted to know how a person could be righteous in the sight of God. He would search for that answer in submission to the discipline and authority of the Church of Rome.
Giving away his earthly goods, Luther joined the Augustinian order where he vowed to die to self, to family and friends, renounce the flesh, suffer poverty, mortify his body, be obedient to his superiors in all things, and follow the rules imposed upon him.
Working for Salvation
Becoming a friar in the Augustinian monastery, Luther set out to honor his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience through endless acts of confession of sins and the performance of good works.
And yet, despite all that Luther did, he failed to find the peace with God he sought after. What could he do? Luther could do more. He would flagellate himself until the blood ran profusely down his body. He would fast to the point of exhaustion. He would sleep on the cold hard floor. He would do anything and everything to merit the merits of Christ and please the Father. But somehow, in the deepest recesses of his soul, Luther felt that God was not satisfied. He was but another Cain offering the fruit of his labors to an unsmiling God.
Transubstantiation: in the Presence of God
In the search for personal salvation, Luther continued his studies. Within two years of entering the Black Cloister he was ordained a priest in 1507.
However, this only made matters worse, from Luther’s point of view, for now he had the awesome responsibility, in the form of transubstantiation, of offering unto the people of Erfurt the Living, the True, and the Eternal God. How could he do that in a worthy manner? He could not and he knew it! So terrified was Martin of the presence of God in the Holy Sacrifice that he trembled at the altar; he could barely complete his first mass.
An Unpardonable Sin
There was something else that Luther trembled at. He believed that he had committed an unpardonable sin. Like everything else, Luther confessed to his superior and “most beloved father in Christ”, Dr. Johann von Staupitz (1469?-1524). “He is God, and He is holy. I am man, and I am unholy. No matter what I do, He condemns me. I cannot love God, and that is my unpardonable sin.”
The Anger of an Anguished Heart
Dr. Staupitz did not understand the seriousness with which Luther took sin and the unceasing confession of his heart. Exasperated, the Confessor exclaimed: “Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?”
He was right, of course. Luther was angry that God could not be pleased. Although he had truly sought to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, he found no comfort. There was always a sense of the wrath of God. Said Luther, “When I am touched by this passing inundation of the eternal, my soul feels and drinks nothing but eternal punishment.” But what was he to do? He would do more! With renewed vigor Luther would study Scripture and theology. He would teach and preach so much that he did not have time to think!
The Unrighteousness of Rome
Perhaps a life of zeal and overwork would placate his tormented soul in search of personal salvation. There was something else Luther would do. He would make a pilgrimage to Rome stopping at various cloisters along the way. And once in Rome Martin would engage in religious rites to secure a place in heaven. He would make a general confession of sins to a Roman priest as opposed to a German priest. He would hear a daily mass. And so to the city of Rome, Martin went to work for the salvation of his soul.
At the altar of St. Sebastian, Luther once said several masses in a single hour, and then was sadden that his parents were still alive, “For I would have loved to deliver them from purgatory with my masses and other special works and prayers.”
Because Martin wanted to deliver his grandfather, Lindemann (Heine) Luder, from purgatory, Luther crawled up and down the twenty-eight marble Santa Scala (Holy Stairs) on his knees reciting the Lord’s Prayer on each step.
By praying this way it was said that a soul could be saved. The Santa Scala was alleged to be the very stairway that Jesus climbed before Pontius Pilate. When the ordeal was over and Luther arrived at the top of the incline, a brief moment of honesty overtook his soul. “Who knows if it is really true?” he softly asked himself. It was almost a blasphemous thought but Luther had seen some things that planted seeds of concern in his sensitive conscience. There was much sin in the Holy City. Luther witnessed drunken priests, rampant immorality, and open laughter at the saints and all that was sacred. Indulgences were hawked for a price.
All this, and more, disturbed Luther. It was true what people had warned him of during the course of his pilgrimage: “The closer onc comes to Rome, the worse the Christians are. “Where God builds a church, the devil puts a chapel next door,” was another true saying, but the churches in Rome were worse. Said Luther, “If there is a hell, then Rome is built on it.”
By March, 1511, Luther had returned to the Observant Augustinian monastery but the old doubts still lingered and the old questions burned more brightly in his soul concerning the righteousness of God and other matters. Luther wanted to know:
Question. “Does the righteousness of God merely judge a man, or can it deliver him from the power and pollution of sin”?
Question. “Is the Church alone competent to interpret Scriptures or can individuals be guided by their own consciences, understanding, and the Holy Spirit”?
Question. “Why must the mass be said in Latin? Why can’t the natural language of the people be used”?
A Pastor with no Personal Peace
While Luther continued to study and search for the salvation of his soul, his life was about to change.
In the little town of Wittenburg, Germany, Duke Frederick III “The Wise” (1463-1525) was determined that the University he had established should have a new professor who could also be a pastor to his people. The name of Luther was brought before his attention. Arrangements were made and in 1511 Luther was brought to Wittenberg to baptize infants, catechize the children, preach to the people, teach students in the University, and study the Scriptures.
Relics and Reason
While Luther seemed content in his new surroundings he was uncomfortable that Frederick, Elector of Saxony, was bringing too many religious relics into the realm. Perhaps 19,013 items were a bit too much. The pious prince meant well. He brought the relics for the glory of God and the good of the church. Still, Luther wondered about The collected fragments of St. Jerome, the fragments of St. Chrysostom, four hairs from the Virgin Mary, a strand of the beard of Jesus, a piece of bread that was eaten at the Last Supper, and a piece of the original cross.
Question. “Could such relics be real? And even if they were genuine, could they deliver souls from purgatory if venerated as was taught”?
Luther was troubled that the symbols of faith were replacing the reality of meaning because if that was happening, then souls were lost and damned.
The Ground of Justification
Despite his concerns over the relics, Luther had two other issues to deal with personally and as a priest.
One issue was theological, the other was practical. The theological issue was the ground of justification or how a person is made right before God. The practical issue was the sale of indulgences.
It was either late in 1513 or early in 1514 that Luther began to teach openly his students something different from Catholic orthodoxy. Luther was now convinced that the true ground of justification was by faith apart from good works. Romans 1:17 confirmed it for there we read that, “The just shall live by faith!”
Suddenly, illuminated by God the Holy Spirit, Luther understood that, the just do not live by relics, nor by good works, nor by any purchased papal parchment. Man is declared righteous in the sight of God by faith.
There was more!
The true Church was not the visible organization that could boast about apostolic succession; the true Church of Christ was invisible and consisted of those in the community of faith who had been given grace to believe in the substitutionary work of Christ at Calvary. Salvation was not corporate but common and individual. Salvation was not to be found in the sacraments but in the Savior. The concept that human beings had a spark of goodness, enough to seek out God, was not a foundational truth, but something that was taught by “fools” and “pig theologians”!
Humility was no longer a virtue that merited grace; rather, humility was the soul’s response to the gift of God’s grace. Faith no longer consisted of mentally agreeing to the dogma of the Church, but of trusting the promises of God and the work of Christ.
A Religious Revolution
Like a dam bursting with the pressure of floodwaters, gospel truths, long neglected, began to pour forth from the heart of Luther and washed over the people in his parish. Luther was renouncing everything he had been taught.
A religious revolution had been launched and the world would soon realize it. In the providence of God, a date had been set: All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517.
The issue that would help to crystallize the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the selling of indulgences on a wide scale in an inappropriate manner.